Why love matters in leadership

I had the honor of presenting to a group of rising healthcare leaders where we discussed our collective thoughts about effective leadership. Drawing on our own experiences, we built a list of attributes that make for good leadership. We agreed that trusted leaders are those who genuinely care about you, invest in your development, show empathy and compassion, listen attentively, and demonstrate an authentic respect for you and for people in general. These leaders are honest, forward looking, competent, and inspirational. We also described them as servant leaders who demonstrate a deep commitment to their company’s mission, and a willingness to put it ahead of their own personal interests.

We paused to consider this statement: Humans are emotional beings.

And then this question: What is the most powerful positive emotion that humans experience?

The answer, we agreed, is love.

Leaving love on the table

It took very little time for a group of seasoned and highly-talented healthcare leaders from all over the country to arrive at this conclusion.  As we looked back to the attributes we valued on the list we had created, so many of them related to love. 

So why are we hesitant to speak of love in the context of leadership? Is it because the word in our language has multiple meanings, spanning a range from brotherly love to romantic love, and extending all the way to divine love?  If leadership is about leading people, why would we not consider in our own leadership the power in the strongest emotion we experience as human beings?

A simpler perspective

Perhaps we need a new way of thinking about it. Dr. Albert Schweitzer said, “The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.” We all serve a mission that is often about caring for others during episodes of unusual vulnerability, always about promoting health and safety in the face of illness or injury, and sometimes about preserving life from the threat of death.  Is it possible to fulfill such a noble mission at the highest level without love?

The leaders I have trusted the most demonstrated love on a consistent basis.  They focused on three things:

  • First, the healthcare mission; you could feel the depth of their dedication to it when they spoke. They found their own words to describe the mission rather than parroting others, and there was reverence in their voices.
  • Second, they demonstrated love for the patients we served. It was a love informed by the solemnity of our obligation to honor the trust they place in us at these critical moments in their lives. It was a love that required us to humbly face our shortcomings, and demanded that we continually do better in caring for them, given the high stakes involved.
  • Third, they showed a genuine love for all the colleagues involved in executing the mission. It was more than a polite recognition that employees are our most important asset.  It went beyond seeing them as a necessary means to an end. It had something of Emmanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, that we see every other person as valuable in and of themselves, rather than a means to furthering our own narrow needs or interests. It included the recognition that those who care for our patients can do it better in an environment where they know they are valued and respected themselves.

It takes courage to do it well

Do we have the courage to care, to declare that we care, and in so doing to raise the bar on our own leadership? To paraphrase a common saying, people may not remember what we said or what we did as a leader, but they will remember how we made them feel.

I believe as we express and exhibit love in our work each day, we are not only more effective leaders, we also provide hope and healing for all those we serve in this noble cause. As Wendy, a pediatric nurse, once said to me, “Duties make us do things; love makes us do them well.”